Are gigs becoming too expensive?

Tickets prices for live music seem to get more and more extortionate (Drake, Kanye, Beyoncé – we’re looking at you), and the gig experience is increasingly becoming a luxury few music fans can afford, but why?

This week saw tickets for Ed Sheeran’s UK arena tour go on sale following the announcement of the release of his third studio album ‘÷’. Standing tickets were priced at £77 and of course sold out in minutes, with online queues consisting of over 90,000 people attempting to get them. I myself avoided all of this after seeing the price of Ed Sheeran’s tickets. I’ve reached a point where I now generally (artist depending) won’t pay more than £50 for gig ticket, and that’s at a push. The most I have ever paid for a gig is £69 for Queen and Adam Lambert at the O2 in January 2015, a price I felt was actually quite fair taking the artist into consideration.

I’ve seen Ed Sheeran a few times before, the most recent being at the O2 in October 2014, my seats were terrible and the two tickets I’d got cost me £37.00 each plus booking fees. SO, having seen him before, I know he hasn’t got much production – his gigs are quite literally just him and a guitar for the most part, which admittedly works in the smaller venues I’d previously seen him in, but for a venue of this size I have high expectations, particularly production wise. This is one reason why I couldn’t really understand the reasoning for his tickets at The Hydro (a smaller venue than the O2) being so expensive. In December of last year I saw The 1975 at The Hydro for only £28. Their production and lighting is insane and frankly, they put on a more impressive show. If they can afford to sell out the Hydro for £28 a ticket, then I’m almost certain that Ed Sheeran, who has an estimated net worth of $60,000,000, can afford to do so too.

In a 2012 interview with the BBC, Ed Sheeran made a point regarding illegal downloads stating that he didn’t really care about people illegally downloading his music. He said: “There’s a decent balance – you can live off your sales and you can allow people to illegally download it and come to your gigs. My gig tickets are £18 and my album is £8, so it’s all relative.” He also later stated that he didn’t see the point in making music if nobody could afford to hear it. So why now 5 years later, does it seem he is completely contradicting himself?

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I know it’s unfair to blame Ed for the price of his tickets, as whilst artists do have some say, there’s a lot of other factors to consider. For example, music piracy sees the erosion of legal music sales which means musicians have to turn to other means of making a living in the music industry – touring and merchandise. In 2002 David Bowie predicted this and said that “music itself is going to become like running water or electricity… you’d better be prepared to do a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left”. Trends in concert pricing are therefore in line with the theory that touring is now the main source of income for artists.

Tour manager Cara McDaniel (CHVRCHES) has said that the degree to which the artist is involved in setting prices depends on the individual, and that she has been with artists who have kept the price of their tickets low on purpose, and still had a great production. They’ve just cut back on things like hotel costs and crew costs, or trimmed down the number of guest spaces in order to keep ticket prices low. However there’s obviously going to be artists’ managements who will say that if you can get away with £120 tickets, then why not? Price tickets too high though and you risk not selling out, but most will find a way of getting the prices as high as they can whilst still getting people to come back for the next tour.

Gig tickets and merchandise are complements to recorded music in that fans will usually buy them if they have first listened to and liked the artists’ albums. Artists typically receive all revenue from merchandise sales. However a new type of recording contract offered by record companies known as the 360 deal may entitle record companies to a share in ticket and merchandise revenue. Ultimately, for a band playing small to medium (2000+ capacity)-type venues, selling merchandise on tour can make the difference between an overall loss and an overall profit

Touring costs for the artist need to be taken into consideration too – equipment hire, trucking, crew wages, catering and every other aspect of touring is more and more expensive. Especially now where audiences have higher expectations for live music and expect huge productions. Production costs were said to be the principal reason behind Björk charging so much. Is it fair for these external costs to then be transferred to the fans via the price of tickets? Arguably. But you then have to ask yourself if higher ticket prices DO mean that fans are getting a better gig for it. Artists should be putting on a gig that is value for money. Kanye for example performed on a levitating stage for his Saint Pablo Tour, Beyoncé’s Formation live shows featured a second stage that stored 2000 gallons of water, and Coldplay of course have their light shows. These things understandably don’t come cheap.

This is where we come back to my Ed Sheeran vs. The 1975 dilemma. I genuinely don’t see how Ed Sheeran can put on a show that would be value for money. And whilst I’m sure few people would come away from his April tour dates feeling short changed, I just personally can’t justify it knowing that I had seen a better gig for less money only a few months prior. Am I biased? Probably.

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Then we come to the issue of the secondary market (sites like StubHub), where sold out tickets are traded for inflated prices online, demonstrable proof that tickets can be worth a lot more than they are primarily priced at. While a lot of artists and promoters are opposed to secondary ticketing, hardcore (and let’s be honest, wealthy) fans will 9 times out of 10 pay whatever the going rate is, ultimately meaning that that poorer fans just simply can’t go, which hardly seems fair at all.

So that’s the fans dilemma, you either pay up or you miss out. There will always be companies taking advantage of the fact that there is money to be made from high ticket pricing, whether that is artists, management, promoters, or venues, and to go with it there will always be fans willing to pay it. I’m sure Ed Sheeran won’t miss the £77 I refused to pay for his ticket anyway.

(Edit: after posting this I was invited for an exciting opportunity to chat with Ticketmaster at their Glasgow HQ and discuss the future of ticketing and live events, as well as issues surrounding the secondary market, woo yeah.)

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